People often talk about love at first sight, whether it’s meeting that special someone to spend your life with or buying a house. But what about the opposite?
Because that was my reaction to Sheffield when I first encountered this northern city almost fifteen years ago. I was on a flying visit to find a place to situate one of my location-based trails ahead of an archaeology conference; I chose a park and quite happily beat a retreat back south, with my overwhelming impressions of the city as somewhere that was grey, dirty, and drab.
I designed the trail, learning a lot about Weston Park in the process. I thought this might soften my opinion when I returned for the conference, but it didn’t alter—Sheffield became the one English city I had no desire to visit.
But my day job had other plans, and I found myself going back a handful of times over years. Anyone who travels regularly for work can vouch that you rarely get to see much beyond your hotel room and meeting venue; these trips weren’t an exception. I did get to hop on the city’s beloved tram system, and, since Sheffield is considered the gateway to the Peak District, I could see some of the gorgeous scenery on the city’s doorstep during my train rides there and back. I had to admit that it wasn’t all bad.
It was my Blue Eagle work that brought me back recently, and it granted me something that I never had before in Sheffield: time to explore. With my job for the day done and my brain pleasantly turning to mush, I set out to enjoy what I could during a few hours of daylight on a beautiful sunny evening.
Walking through the Georgian gateway of the Botanical Gardens was like stepping into a completely different era. The sound of traffic died away and all I could see was greenery and spring blossoms, a veritable oasis a stone’s throw from the city centre. Unfortunately, I was too late in the day to explore the original glass pavilions but just meandering through the tranquil grounds was the perfect way to unwind. On my way out, I stumbled upon one of the best surviving examples of a 19th-century bear pit, commemorated today with a life-size bear sculpture. This was a historic side of Sheffield I had never seen before.
From there I wandered to Endcliffe Park, a Victorian addition to the city that was built to mark the queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Today, it combines formal recreation grounds with a woodland and brook; the space can only be described as charming. I left feeling like Sheffield had let me in on a little secret: if you are willing to seek them out, there are some not-so-hidden gems just waiting to be found.
The next morning, I headed for the city centre and its dual gardens. The first is the Peace Gardens, a series of fountains and green spaces built around the 19th-century Town Hall (not to be confused with the City Hall, which is actually an entertainment venue). Then there is the Winter Garden, a modern greenhouse opened in 2003 as part of the regeneration of the city. Its intelligent climate control system keeps the temperate plants happy and thriving year-round while ensuring visitors also stay comfortable in warm or cool weather.
Connected to it is the Millennium Gallery, a pocket museum in the very heart of the city and a place where I hit the artistic jackpot. This year marks the 500th anniversary since the death of Leonardo da Vinci; to commemorate this, Leonardo’s sketches from the Royal Collection were divided up and sent out to 12 museums across the country. It brought back happy memories of queueing for four hours to get tickets to the 2012 da Vinci exhibition in London—I say this without sarcasm, but with the rose-coloured glow that the intervening years have given one of my more surreal museum experiences!
Unlike that exhibition, however, there were no queues and very few people in the gallery. Instead, it was easy to get close to the sketches to spend time contemplating them if you wished. Several things struck me while doing so. First, the sheer brilliance of the draughtsmanship. Da Vinci was obviously a great artist, but these drawings reveal his observant eye and technical mastery even more than his better known paintings. His attention to detail was second to none; each aspect of a sketch was handled with incredible care, whether Leda’s famous braids (the inspiration for Princess Leia perhaps?) or a masquerade costume that just begs to be recreated at a Renaissance Fayre.
Through the drawings it was possible to get a sense for Leonardo’s overwhelming curiosity about the world: anatomical drawings that seem like they could have come from a modern medical textbook sit side by side with illustrations depicting fluid dynamics and the proportions of faces. Because many of the sketches were made with chalk on handmade paper, the colour is still vibrant and they look like they could have been drawn yesterday. I felt closer to a historical person than I usually do when visiting a museum, like Leonardo could be reached just beyond the glass.
Beyond having this opportunity to get better acquainted with the works of da Vinci, I was also properly introduced to John Ruskin. I had heard of Ruskin before but I had filed him away in a mental collection of random Victorian artists and authors. However, the Ruskin gallery helped me understand him in a completely different light.
Beyond his varied occupations—he was a writer, artist, art critic, and social campaigner—Ruskin wanted to give the workers who powered the industrial cities a place to escape from the dirt, smoke, and grime, somewhere to learn about and be inspired by art and nature. His philosophy of seeing beauty in the everyday world is one I wholeheartedly subscribe to, and the Ruskin Collection at the museum remains a haven for anyone passing through Sheffield city centre.
Moving from the natural world to the world of industry, the Sykes Gallery at the museum is dedicated to metalwork. Fans of Doctor Who may have noticed that the new Doctor—a Sheffield lass herself—made her own sonic screwdriver last year from a collection of cutlery (i.e. silverware). This was no accident: Sheffield has been known for making high-quality metal goods for centuries, and Sheffield plate—a combination of layered copper and silver—revolutionised the industry and made the city known around the world. The metalwork collection has over 13,000 different items … although not all are on display at one time as you would need the space-bending technology of the TARDIS to showcase them all!
And speaking of Doctor Who, there is another connection to the show with a police box that sits in the shadow of the Town Hall. This one is green instead of blue but, much like its famous counterpart, it’s a survivor—in fact, it’s the last of 120 police boxes that used to be situated across Sheffield. Introduced in 1928, the boxes served as a contact point between the public and the police, a place for officers to grab a meal or fill out paperwork, and, on occasion, a temporary lock-up. Modern policing technology put such boxes out of service in the 1960s, but like the bear pit at the Botanical Gardens, it was fascinating to be able to come face-to-face with a piece of the past.
To finish my visit to Sheffield on a high note, I took to the sky on the Starflyer. Standing 220 feet tall, it swings riders over the city centre and provides a completely new vantage point of the local architecture and distant countryside. While riding, I discovered that it’s not possible to actually focus the camera when going so fast, so I just hit the shutter and hoped for the best. As far as photography techniques go, it’s not perfect but it did work better than expected!
So, how do I feel about Sheffield now? After spending over a decade nursing a dislike of the city, I have grown to respect it—from its industrial architecture and green spaces to its willingness to reinvent itself. I admit that I might not love it in the same way that Bristol or Cambridge have worked themselves into my heart, but I appreciate the lessons it has taught me:
- Second, third, and occasionally fifth chances are necessary for a successful spark.
- Oases—whether of greenery or art and learning—can be found where least expected.
- Sometimes you have to get above it all—and perhaps go around in circles a few times—to see the full picture.